Novel Writing 101

Available on Amazon

To honor my friend and fellow writer Tim Hall, whose debut novel is out.

Step One–accept that you have a story to tell.

Two–confront the many ways to tell it: memoir, fiction, photo montage, essays.

Three–write reams to get the story out of your head onto the page. Take heart, this is what Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) calls “a shitty first draft,” completely normal.

Four–doubt it, consider taking a cruise or strong medicine, anything to control this malignancy that’s eating up your life.

Five–begin again to believe that you have a novel in that overweight three-ring binder and start carving away the fatty parts.

Six–ask a few trusted people to read it and sift through their advice with eyes wide open, ego in check.

Seven–lock yourself in a room for hours and hours at a time, revising and sweating, pacing, laughing and crying all in quick succession.

Eight–breathe deep and hand it to an editor.

Nine–introduce  your new book to the world, knowing its tiny flaws; carry a copy with you at all times; sleep with it next to the bed; drive it around town like an honored guest.

Ten–begin planning your next book.

Only Myself to Blame

It’s been a good week: five poems accepted for publication and acknowledged, a time-consuming project cancelled and a new poem written. Of course, I did my daily morning pages and insisted on a focus. I updated my submissions list and noted the next round of subs. But I did not tackle the long projects on my to-do list. It’s not that I don’t want to write the family history that’s outlined and started. And I would happily write a long essay about the need for writers to be vigilant in following the news, no matter how unsavory it is. I should sort and revise the short-fiction manuscript lurking in a fat notebook. But big projects don’t reach the finish line quickly. And that’s where I give up, curl up with the cat and a jigsaw puzzle, defeated by my own expectations: that I need to finish everything efficiently, right now.

Writing doesn’t work that way. It needs to incubate, grow in the dark, gestate. Pick a metaphor. I forget this regularly because our consumerist society demands efficiency and products with a price tag. What I need is to turn off all the media, stack up a dozen good books and withdraw from society for a while. And I don’t mean one afternoon. I mean a deep retreat from the angst and pace of public life. An article in the new Poets & Writers advocates a writing retreat.

Ah, yes, a writing retreat shimmers on the calendar, so bright that I squint at May 23rd, when I will fly back east for three weeks. I’ll house/dog/cat sit and stuff the TV remote under a couch cushion, post my absence from social media, and stop the clocks. I’ll write whatever comes, play with the dogs, and sit by the ocean. From here that feels right and easy. The catch, of course, is I’ll still have my own attitudes to deal with, my need to reassure myself that I am, in fact, a writer, no matter what shows up on the page.

 READ FOR EQUALITY

FOR A LIST OF NEW BOOKS BY PEOPLE OF COLOR: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+TroyJohnson

Esoteric Joy

Full disclosure: I am a detail junky, a fact addict. I keep a fat black notebook full of potentially useless information. Like if you plant an orange seed you may grow a lemon tree. That the okapi–a mammal that looks like a cross between a giraffe and a horse–is a six million year old species. That the last passenger pigeon died in 1914. That the USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on February 15, 1898. I graze like a goat in the flower beds and pick up all sorts of weird information, some of which I cannot possibly digest. Like knowing that a thing called CRISPR-Cas 9 is a sort of “molecular scissors” that can help modify genes.

Of what use can I make of these facts? Writers need a diet that includes tiny bits of information, like the body needs to ingest minute amounts of some minerals. You never can tell when a datum will go from frivolous to rich fodder. When I was writing Providence, I read a lot about water, tides, surge lines and such. I learned more than I needed to build a plausible story, but I learned what I needed. Marge Piercy, in writing her bestselling novel Gone to Soldiers, had her local library borrow on interlibrary loan “well over a thousand books.” She had to rely on technology to keep track of all that data. Now, while technology annoys and distracts me (Yeah, I look at cute cats on FB.) it also serves up a vast menu of data and prevents my local library staff from dying from exhaustion.

What we know and what we need to know is not always obvious. Far better, in my view, to store up extra knowledge. And then engage in what might be called “alien phenomenology.” This is an “[attempt] to understand the experience and interiority of objects, no matter how incomprehensible or speculative an act this may be” (M. R. O’Connor, Resurrection Science, 225). Hmm, and all along I thought that was called creative writing. See, you never know what’s out there to nibble on.

Read for Equality, Please

Regular readers here will have seen my postings of READ FOR EQUALITY, a habit that has grown out of my concern for the racial inequity in publishing. In honor of these concerns I am happy to turn over the blog today to Linda Thornton, who shares her unique history. Linda tells her story clearly and succinctly. I welcome your response. KD

Secret Seeds

I grew up close to the border and my last name was Villa.  Even though my skin is fair and burns in 10 minutes, it was pretty easy to guess that I am Latina.  But now with my married name sounding white and my living in Colorado, well, I’m a bit more of a chameleon. Most people have no idea until I tell them.

And then I adopted a black boy.  He was this baby in a bowtie who was happily banging the courtroom table while the judge was asking me legal questions about forever and family.  I could barely hear the judge over the joyful squeals in my ear but I already knew all the answers.  “I do.”  “I will.”

The year was 2015 and I had no idea that I had just been drafted into a race relations war in the US.  This was before I had heard of the Black Lives Matter movement, before Trump, before the year everything came to a head.  Sure, I knew some people were racist in this country but I thought we could easily maneuver around them.  After all, hadn’t I easily maneuvered around racists as a Latina?

Yes, I had.

But what did I leave behind in my wake?  Who did not get their chance?  Will that person be my son because I didn’t face racism head on when I saw it?  To turn around in its face and firmly say, “No.”

We have a duty now.  No matter our color or gender or the number in our bank account.  No one is exempt from the calling this time.  It needs all of us.  And that doesn’t mean just not being a racist yourself but you being a warrior for justice.  Silence is compliance and my son is watching your silence.

Will you march? Will you call? Will you write? Will you say something if you see something?  I call these people the front line.  And I’ve discovered that not every person is built for it.

But there are other lines to stand on.  Will you read? Reading is active because it can change your hard wiring.  Read fiction about growing up in the South.  Read non-fiction regarding the statistics of mass incarceration.  Read a children’s book where the main character is black and it doesn’t even come up as a plot point. And read it to children.

Then take those books and pass them on.  Donate them to a library, donate them to a school, leave it on a park bench with a note that says “free.”

Even though minorities make up 37% of the U.S. population they are represented in children’s books at 10%.  So send an email and coffee money to a minority writer.  Write a poem from the perspective of a different race than your own.   Talk to your librarian about having a display with books that showcase diversity.

The front liners are on the news and in our feed and in our ears.  But you can be our second wave.  You can be the secret seed planters.  Even if you are not here to see the harvest, know that my son will be.

READ FOR EQUALITY

Beginners/Middlers/Enders

This week, emptying the box in which I had stashed a year’s worth of journals,  I found that all too many had blank pages at the back because I rushed to start a new one before I finished the old. I love a new journal, a new pen, a new car. (Though in truth I have kept a few cars for a decade, but that’s finance riding herd on my impulses.)

My writing plans sprout like radishes. I start stories, poems, essays, reading lists, but too soon, I fade. I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner. My tendency to quit before I’m done might have started in childhood. (Always fair game, eh?) From the age of six months I was moved from state to state, house to house, a chess pawn in adult hands, not much staying put. Then as a military wife, I fell under the spell of the DOD. As a nurse I was so employable that I changed jobs easily, never got the gold pin for longevity.

As a writer, this impulse to move on like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party means that I draft a story, maybe revise it a time or two while it’s new and full of exciting potential, but then I’m apt to stuff it into a file and not finish it. I wrote my novel Providence in scenes, small chunks that I then had to wrestle into a more or less logical structure. That challenged me.

Poetry comes more easily, the bright-light beginnings seduce me and, given the brevity of my poems, I usually finish them. If one can ever call a poem finished. I admit that my revisions folder gets cobwebby and the resident house spider is no help. As I type, I realize that I’m in the middle of this little essay and I can’t see the exit sign. But you get the idea. Identify your patterns and adjust to taste.

What’s the Use of Poetry?

In W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” we find the line “For poetry makes nothing happen …” but we also find this: “Let the healing fountain start,/ In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.” Assuming that the free man might be man or woman, we need right now a healing fountain. Today poetry will make this much happen: nine people will drive to Longmont, CO, from Denver, Broomfield, Erie, Lafayette, Louisville and Arvada in pursuit of healing; if not healing, at least thought about the uses of poetry. Like a flight of wine, we will taste a variety of what some call political poems, others label poems of witness or protest.

I doubt we will reach consensus over the value of these poems, but we will listen to the considered opinions of others. Over lunch at The Motherlode Cafe, we will talk about poems that react to war, violence, bigotry, and abuse of power. In these strange, divisive times we thirst for language to express our angst, our shared fears and hopes. Here are the poems we will wrestle with: “The Last Election” by John Haines; an excerpt from the prelude to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forche; “Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison” by Nazim Hikmet; “On the Steps of the Jefferson Memorial” by Linda Pasten; “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats; “Listening to Distant Guns” by Denise Levertov; “Why I Don’t Mention Flowers When Conversations with My Brother Reach Uncomfortable Silences” by Natalie Diaz; and “Explanations” by Stephen Dunn.

These poems are meant to disturb complacency, to cause reaction in troubling times, and there’s always trouble, so I see no end to the need for poems and poets who struggle to wake us up.


			

Seasonal Sadness

Whether we call it seasonal affective disorder or the winter blahs, we know that this dark time of the year can suggest never again being warm and free of gloom. So for millennia we have created festivals of light–candles, holiday decorations, elves in bright red suits, and a reindeer whose nose is a beacon in the fog. These lights help, but when they don’t do enough good, there’s writing.

But when our culture encourages us to shop, wrap, celebrate, over eat, drink too much–when the hell do we find time to write? To which I say, we never find time to write; we make time. And if we suffer the blahs, writing helps. The Jan-Feb 2017 Poets & Writers includes an essay by Frank Bures, “Writing the Self: Some Thoughts on Words and Woe.” It’s worth your time and dollars to find it and absorb his words. Basically, he cites studies that demonstrate the benefits of writing about our own sadness, frustration, disappointment.

These findings should not be news, but we live in a consumerist world that values book sales, best-seller lists, and honorifics that lead back to sales. We are urged to write for other reasons than to lift ourselves out of a murky turn of mind. Writing, though, can be the candle in the window, a path through deep snow. Each of us, the Scribbler Tribe, wander in an  imagined wilderness made from words, a world of beauty as well as beasts. When sharp criticism or lack of ambient light wound us, we can slap on bandaids, build splints made of language, and drag ourselves to the light that is our freedom to write what we need to say, to see two lines elongate into story, poem, essay, history. It’s black magic or white every time. It’s blood letting and vomitus and feces. It’s also a long exhalation and muscle stretch. It means we still live, active animals who write. Do it, daily. Happy Holidays.